TNB Book Review: Joseph, by Dena Rash GuzmanBy Kurt Baumeister
June 30, 2017
“I Dug the Hole Already, joseph”
My beauty a shovel.
A spoon of aconite and arsenic.
In your mouth refusing food.
To beg instead a stylish garter drama.
Prussic acid gimlet.
Open veins bleed hell.
I’ll ring your bell, son.
I will ring your bell.
–Dena Rash Guzman, Joseph
The word “revelation” is a popular superlative in literary circles, popular to the point of overuse. It’s not the only one, of course. There’s an element of hyperbole to criticism, one born of multiple impulses: some noble; some less so. Does the critic desire so passionately to illuminate the art before him that he fails it and his audience, falls back on hyperbole because it conveys at least part of what he means to say? Or does he do it for himself, try to prove his own intellect by overstating the success (or failure) of another person’s art?
Whatever the reasons, the field of literary criticism is littered with many a would-be “masterpiece” and misnamed “tour de force”; more questionable “statements” and suspect “wonders” than the dead of Troy and Agincourt, Gettysburg and Moscow combined. Sometimes, though, no matter how super the superlative; the word fits. On those occasions, the critic has every right to use a term such as “revelation.” Perhaps, in some ways, he even has an obligation to do so. But he also has an obligation to justify it.
From the outset of Joseph, Dena Rash Guzman’s second poetry collection, we see a literary superstructure developing before us, an architecture delineated not just in the volume’s titling but in the way each of Guzman’s poems is—in turns lyrical and prosaic, blunt and sophisticated, wildly funny and blithely caustic—directed at a different Joseph. The key question in considering Guzman’s vision for the book is the role of her ever-changing Joseph? Is he protagonist? Antagonist? Oblivious target? All three and then some?
From a symbolic standpoint, it’s possible Guzman’s Joseph is the Joseph of biblical fame, the poet casting her predominately (if not exclusively) female narrators as Mary stand-ins, addressing gender dynamics reinforced by thousands of years of Christianity in the West. As a woman and an artist, it would make perfect sense for Guzman to tweak and even attack the patriarchal power structure in this way. Which she does. But it’s clear to me Guzman is going for more.
Beyond the biblical lies Joseph’s identity as the modern (though not as much as he thinks) Everyman. In one poem, Joseph can be the hipster bro who’s a secret misogynist. In another, the chauvinist cave-dude who longs for a return to the 50’s. Not all Guzman’s Josephs are bad or wrong, though. These are real men, often the average father or friend, husband or lover. They have faults, but many of them also have virtues. And it’s this synthesis of dramatic reality and literary symbolism that helps explain why Joseph is such a powerful collection. That said, we might alternately see the title as ironic, the book not about Guzman’s Josephs at all. Rather, it might be about the impact history’s billions of Josephs have had on women as a group. Not that these interpretations preclude each other. In fact, they work quite effectively together, layered one on the other; another hint that this is indeed a special, clearly and cleverly thought out collection. With unshakeable loyalty to her personal truth, catchy rhythms, and surprising, at times brilliant, wordplay Guzman creates an environment in which Joseph can be both symbol and individual. For me, though, it’s the consistent humor of this collection that most sets it apart.
“Fuck it, I’m Going for a Manicure, joseph”
Roses r read
Violets r blue
The only cure
Is a few isolated stag colonies
Inhabited by men who have mutated
To survive solely on Doritos.
Honesty is often at the heart of humor and it certainly is central to this collection, though not always in the service of comedy. These poems have been lived by their narrators, Guzman the filter. Often, perhaps, they are autobiographical, but who can say how often and when? I suppose Guzman; but she’s not telling. And when you’re as honest as Guzman, it doesn’t matter. You are conveying truth even if it’s not a truth you have physically lived. As at the end of “I Wrote an Open Letter to the Baby Deer I Nearly Hit Tonight, joseph”, when she looks at the world through the eyes of that deer’s mother.
“I can say with certitude that I was driving carefully tonight.
When your eyes and fur came before me I did the thing –
I slammed on my brakes. The road lit up bright red in back
of my car, a German number. It handles well under stress
like beasts with four legs just like you still have.
Inches from your shell-shocked little face.
I stopped. Your mother came after you, rearing
As I might have. Her life with us here must be difficult,
all her nights most likely fraught by ancestral memories
of wolf packs hunting her herd. She might be a single mom.”
For this critic, when it comes to Dena Rash Guzman’s Joseph, the term revelation is deserved and even essential. Not only for me as a man but in imagining all the other Josephs out there, knowing they’re not necessarily evil, but they’ve got a thing or two hundred wrong, that perhaps the most constructive thing we can do is consider the possibility we’re not the subject at all. Perhaps men need to spend some time not imagining themselves as the hero (or villain) in every story.
Filled with humor and lyricism, wisdom and truth, Joseph is a window into the realities of being a woman, a significant collection that, in early 2017, could not have been released at a more appropriate time. Call it brilliant. Call it impressive. Call it a revelation or come up with your own superlative. Just buy it. And read it. Now.